The new polls suggest it’s time to pop the question. Can Baylor repeat?
Here the Bears are, new to No. 1; the fourth of the season already, following Gonzaga, Duke and Purdue. That’s something they never were last season. Not until the end, anyway. The roster tells us this is a surprise. Four starters are missing from the national champions. The defensive stats tell us it isn’t.
Baylor is second in the nation in points allowed and scoring margin, fourth in turnover margin and steals, 17th in field goal percentage defense. The Bears’ nine opponents have combined for only three more field goals than turnovers. Five of the nine could not break 60. None scored more than 63. Michigan State was forced into 19 turnovers and lost to Baylor by 17 points. Villanova shot 22 percent and managed 36 points Sunday, losing by 21. That was the first time the Wildcats had been held under 40 since 1979 and matched the lowest point total for an Associated Press top-10 team in the shot clock era.
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That 57-36 suffocation put Baylor’s record at — egads — 18-3 against ranked opponents in the past three years, and 37-2 overall since the start of last season. It wasn’t a very hard call, deciding who should be at the top of the rankings this week. “Every coach will tell you that the goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the year,” coach Scott Drew was saying. “But I will tell you that it always means something. It means something to the fans, it means something to your coaches, your players.”
Not to mention your future opponents. Or maybe you didn’t see half the state of New Jersey storm the court the other night after Rutgers knocked off Purdue. Baylor is both defending national champion and ranked No. 1. That’s being a Texas-sized target.
But the question still stands. Is there a genuine repeat chance starting to bubble in Waco?
History scowls at the very idea. Florida is the last team to pull it off, and that was 2007. The Duke Christian Laettners of 1991-92 are the only other repeaters in the nearly half-century since the end of the John Wooden dynasty at UCLA. The fates of the past 13 defending champions give an idea of the tall order facing Baylor, lockdown defense and all.
Florida 2008 — All five starters were gone from the two-time champions, so a threepeat seemed out of the question. Still, the young cast of new Gators — five of the top nine were freshman — started 18-3. But they slumped badly at the end, losing eight of their last 11 in the regular season, and went uninvited to the NCAA Tournament, ending up in the NIT semifinals. Coach Billy Donovan was free with his gloomy words after a first-round SEC tournament loss killed their NCAA hopes. “It’s hard for me to get excited going forward because I don’t see things getting fixed,” he said. “It’s in front of our guys, what it takes to win. For whatever reason, I haven’t brought it out in them. They’re not committed to it... I’m not really excited about seeing this group of guys being sophomores.”
Kansas 2009 — The Jayhawks, with every starter gone from the 2008 champions, dropped from the rankings for a week in January, but would not be out again until February of 2021. They advanced to the Sweet 16 but lost 67-62 to Michigan State after leading by 13 in the first half. “We weren’t a very good basketball team early,” Bill Self said. “The guys really came together. They gave us a chance to be good.”
North Carolina 2010 — A year after steamrolling through their six NCAA Tournament games by 43, 14, 21, 12, 14 and 17 points, the Tar Heels returned only one starter and went 16-16 in the regular season, and 5-11 in the ACC. They ended by losing the NIT championship game to Dayton 79-68, or else they would have had the rather bittersweet honor of being the first team ever to win the NCAA and then the NIT in consecutive seasons. “It’s been an unusual year for North Carolina basketball,” Roy Williams said.
Duke 2011 — Two starters were back, including Kyle Singler, the 2010 Final Four Most Outstanding Player. The Blue Devils rolled to a 15-0 start and won the ACC tournament, so repeat talk was not illogical. But they ran into Arizona in the Sweet 16 and were stampeded 93-77 — the Wildcats scoring 55 points in the second half. “The tournament is cruel,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s an abrupt end for everybody when you don’t win.”
Connecticut 2012 — Three starters returned, but not Kemba Walker. He had led a miraculous Huskies surge to the 2011 title, when they went from losing seven of 11 to winning the Big East tournament with five victories in five days, and then six more in the NCAA. He was the leading UConn scorer in all 11 wins. The 2012 Huskies missed him, going 8-12 in their last 20 regular season games, and then being bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Iowa State. A sophomore guard named Shabazz Napier berated his own performance in the press conference afterward. “We had a great player last year who brung it every single day,” he said. “And as a point guard it’s my job to bring that. When you don’t... for your teammates, you lose games. More often than not, you sit up here talking about what you could have done and what you should have done.” Two years later, Napier would be Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, carrying the Huskies to another national championship.
Kentucky 2013 — It was business as usual for John Calipari. One group of phenoms out — all six who scored in the 2012 title game — and another batch in. This reloading did not go so well, especially when key big man Nerlens Noel was lost to a knee injury. The 21-12 Wildcats ended up in the NIT, and for one final indignity, lost in the first round to Robert Morris. “This is humbling,” Calipari said. About 99 percent of Big Blue Nation would not disagree.
Louisville 2014 — Three starters returned, plus Luke Hancock, who was a Most Outstanding Player sensation off the bench at the 2013 Final Four. The Cardinals won the American conference tournament and made it back as far as the Sweet 16, but then lost 64-59 to — oh, my — Kentucky. The Wildcats led only 65 seconds the entire game, and Louisville missed 10 free throws. “It’s the end of an era for us,” Rick Pitino said.
Connecticut 2015 — With 14 season losses, the Huskies needed to win the American tournament to get an NCAA bid. They made it as far as the American title game but lost to SMU 62-54 when leading scorer Ryan Boatright went 1-for-12. “I’m a man, I can take it on the chest,” he said afterward, accepting responsibility for UConn falling short. That meant the NIT. With Boatright out due to a shoulder injury, the Huskies quickly lost to Arizona State 68-61.
Duke 2016 — Krzyzewski had to replace nearly his entire lineup, and that didn’t get easier when leading rebounder Amile Jefferson was lost for the season with a foot fracture. The Blue Devils dropped four of five in the ACC at one stretch but did get back to the Sweet 16, losing 82-68 to Oregon.
Villanova 2017 — Here was a bonafide repeat threat. Three key Wildcats had come back from the ’16 champions and Villanova rolled into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed with a 31-3 record. But the offense hit a wall in the second round against Wisconsin, as 41 percent shooting led to a 65-62 loss. Kris Jenkins, who famously buried the winning 3-pointer in the 2016 championship game, went 4-for-22 in the two tournament games. Magic can come and go. “There’s no dishonor in losing in this tournament,” Jay Wright said. “You are judged by how you play in this tournament and that’s the reality of it. So you have to accept it.”
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North Carolina 2018 — Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II were returning back from the 2017 champions, and so was fast-developing Luke Maye. But these Tar Heels had their struggles, getting upset by Wofford during the season and losing three ACC games in a row. They showed up in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Charlotte to face Texas A&M. North Carolina had been 34-1 in tournament games in its home state. Make that 34-2. The Aggies outmuscled the Tar Heels and won 86-65, the worst loss for a defending champion in two decades. It was also Williams’ most lopsided tournament loss ever... until the 85-62 rout by Wisconsin his final game last March. “I pictured it ending with these two guys having a big smile on their face,” Williams said afterward, sitting next to Pinson and Berry. “But that’s not college basketball.”
Villanova 2019 — This repeat run ended with a thud. More precisely, an 87-61 thrashing by Purdue in the second round, as Carson Edwards shredded the Wildcats for 42 points. It was the worst tournament loss in Villanova history. “This game is a humbling game,” Wright said. “You could be on either side of it.”
Virginia, 2020 and ’21 — The Cavaliers had two chances to defend and COVID wrecked both. In 2020, they had won eight in a row and the ACC regular season title and seemed all primed for March. But March never happened as the virus shut down the sport. In 2021, with Kihei Clark the only starter left from the 2019 champions, they were hit with a virus outbreak and had to pull out of the ACC Tournament, then quarantine all week before their NCAA Tournament game. After virtually no practice, they finally traveled to Indianapolis at the last minute but were a quick out against Ohio 62-58. “I faced such joy in this tournament on so many occasions,” Tony Bennett said. “I’ve faced the heartache, too. You always have to be willing to accept them both.”
Thirteen defending champions, and none advanced past the Sweet 16. That is the lesson of time, and one that Baylor now faces. But as of Monday, the Bears are at least viewing it from the best seat in the house.